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Licensing child care has its advantages


© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 28, 2001

It sounded like bureaucracy run amok: a county agency shuts down a well-liked child care provider for not having a license. This recent story about a home-based child care in Seminole left many parents frustrated. At a time when more and more moms are going back to work, this case makes it look like the government is getting in the way of good child care.

Actually, that Pinellas County's Child Care Licensing Board requires homes to meet a long set of guidelines can make a big difference to your child.

A licensed provider has 30 hours of training -- from CPR and sanitary diaper changing routines to infant brain development and how to stimulate children from day one through 8 years old.

A provider goes through four hours each year to renew a license. Courses cover child development, behavior management, rules and regulations, policies, talking with parents, communicating with children and the use of play materials.

"There are situations when we find an unlicensed child care provider, and once that person follows through and becomes licensed they are very happy they did so," said Kathy Conroy, a county licensing specialist.

Barbara Cook has been a licensed child care provider running a program in her St. Petersburg home for 20 years. She's one of 930 home-based child care providers in the county.

"You can call the license board at any given time with any questions and ask for support," she said. "They are there for the protection of the kids, but they are on our side, too. They are there to help you in any way with having your home life woven into a career."

The fact that she's licensed didn't change the activities and curriculum that Cook teaches to the five children she cares for. She comes up with that on her own. But if she weren't licensed, she knows, her home wouldn't be as safe.

"There are so many little intricate things that I would have never thought about," she said. "We need a notarized emergency medical release form on file because some hospitals wouldn't administer treatment without a parent present if we didn't have that release form. We have medicine logs where we write down what time we give them any medicine. We have a fire escape plan and practice it once a month."

Because she's licensed, Cook also has to have a firefighter inspect her home once a year. It was through that inspection that she learned she should have smoke alarms next to the kitchen instead of near the bedrooms. By the time the smoke triggers the alarm in the bedroom, the smoke is dangerously close.

There are other safeguards for licensed homes. A pool must have locks on all gates and doors leading to the pool, and the provider must take water safety classes. If the home has dogs or cats, the county checks to make sure their rabies shots are up to date. Swing sets and other play equipment can't be splintered or cracked in a way that could harm the children. All homes must have well-stocked first aid boxes.

Yes, there are forms to fill out and classes to take and the prospect of three surprise inspections a year. But the licensing board does make a difference in improving the quality of child care with little added cost to the providers or users.

The board has no control over what child care providers can charge. Through Coordinated Child Care, another government entity, parents can get help paying for some or all of their weekly costs with licensed providers.

The licensing board goes out once a week to check for unlicensed homes and usually finds two or three. The checks often are based on calls from neighbors. If someone is keeping even one child who is not related, the law requires the caregiver to be licensed.

"We assume they don't know the law. We tell them about it and have them dismiss the children," Conroy said. "We encourage them to sign up to get licensed and we find temporary care for the children until they can do so."

The license application fee is $25. The 30 hours of training cost $64 and are offered several times a month. Once providers are licensed, they qualify for grants that can pay for new books, toys, cots and outdoor play equipment. They also can get some reimbursement for food costs from the Department of Agriculture by participating in a program in which they submit their menus to the county's licensing board.

Another benefit that licensing brings to providers is the ability to meet other in-home child care providers through workshops, classes and parties.

"As strange as it sounds, home day care can be very isolating. So it's nice to know there are other people out there making this a career and it's working for them just as it works for me," Cook said.

Once providers meet each other, they may plan joint trips to the library, play groups, birthday parties or Halloween parades. They also share questions, problems and advice.

Only a handful of counties have their own licensing regulations and inspections. Pinellas is joined by Hillsborough, Palm Beach and a few others. State law requires that all other family child care homes be registered and that providers go through criminal background checks. State registration also calls for 30 hours of training.

"We would like to see the whole state move toward licensing," said Phyllis Kalifeh, chief executive of the Florida Children's Forum, a nonprofit child advocacy group in Tallahassee. "It protects the children and even helps the provider to have somebody else saying, "This home is safe.' "

* * *

The MOMS Club of St. Petersburg is having a membership drive from 10 a.m. to noon Nov. 7 at the Gladden Park Recreation Center, 3901 30th Ave. N. There will be free kids' activities, refreshments and car seat safety checks. A company will make fingerprinted identity cards for children for $5.95 each. All moms (and dads) looking for weekly outings with children and a support network for sharing questions and ideas about parenting are invited. Call 545-0919 for more information.

-- You can reach Katherine Snow Smith by e-mail at; or write Rookie Mom, St. Petersburg Times, PO Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

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